Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Nasty Truth About Living Within the Big Lie

Today, living within the big lie requires that one consents to the belief in free markets, representative democracy, and sustainable development, regardless of the gaping flaws in each of the concepts. Taken together they represent the so-called noble lie that provides the social cohesion that allows for our society to function. Dissent is for the most part fruitless since there exits an implicit consensus within the society to ignore or quickly forget any speech or gesture that calls into question the truthfulness about the foundation concepts. Nevertheless, having been the recipient of a quality public education, I feel obliged to expose the myths for what they are and hope that by gaining a better understanding of how they function others will be better able to lead more authentic lives.

Upon close analysis, each one of the cultural myths underlying the big lie puts forward a belief that is contrary to what the myth attempts to conceal.

For example, the belief that markets function better when left to themselves is political propaganda at best. First, in order for markets to function at all, they need to be enabled by a legal system that respects contractual obligations and offers dispute resolution. Governments provide this much needed feature at public expense. Second, favorable market intervention from government offers corporations sizable competitive advantage, so much so that it is more profitable to invest billions of dollars in lobbying and political donations than to reinvest the said amounts into improving the quality of existing goods and services in hopes of gaining a greater share of the market. Third, markets, financial markets in particular, are prone to systemic failure if not properly regulated. Indeed, failure to regulate the financial markets brought about a global economic recession that made necessary huge injections of public funds so to avoid a full scale collapse and possible depression. Profits remained profit and risk was socialized.

One might argue that a democratic response from the electorate would supply the appropriate corrective. However, it should be noted that representative democracy in North America provides for popular elections, but this in itself does not render the political institutions democratic. Hardly. At the most fundamental level, democracy entails that the majority of the citizens hold and exercise political power. This is not the case in North America. In fact, a combination of electoral practices, the influence of money and a voting method that discards the majority of votes, thwarts the demos from exercising its political will and power is effectively held and exercised by a monied elite. The advent of universal suffrage has done little to change electoral dynamics except to heighten the property requirements to become a member of the ruling class.

Finally, to overcome any misgivings that might arise among the population upon reflection about the consequences of ever-increasing levels of consumption, the term "sustainable development" has been appropriated to mean something far different from its original meaning. No longer used to signify economic development that sustains a healthy social sphere and maintains a healthy environment, the term is widely used as a means to greenwash the continued unsustainable consumption of nonrenewable resources. By framing economic activity as being part of sustainable development the inconvenient fact that nonrenewable resources are finite is conveniently ignored and the much-needed development of the large scale use of renewable energy sources is further delayed.

In short, the virtuous connotations surrounding the concept of sustainability are linked to economic development in a similar manner that the virtuous connotations surrounding the concept of democracy are linked to representation. In neither case are the virtues to be found in practice and the much sought legitimacy is just a front.

And this brings me to the nasty truth about living within the big lie. As the renowned playwright Vaclev Havel once wrote, "the individual, declares his loyalty . . . in the only way the regime is capable of hearing; that is, by accepting the prescribed ritual, by accepting appearances as reality, by accepting the given rules of the game. In doing so, however, he has himself become a player in the game, thus making it possible for the game to go on, for it to exist in the first place."

Compliance allows the game to continue. So, in 2011 don't be compliant. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudo-life. Be authentic and choose to live within the truth.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Contesting the Democratic Legitimacy and the Political Authority of the Quebec and Federal Governments

Two recent events cast serious doubts about the democratic legitimacy of our political institutions and call into question the nature of the political authority they wield.

In Quebec, the Charest government refuses to hold a public inquiry against the wishes of the vast majority of the population into the corruption within the construction industry and its ties to the financing of Quebec's political parties. At the federal level, the unelected Canadian Senate voted down the comprehensive climate change legislation passed by the majority of members of the elected lower house.

Indeed, this turn of events in Quebec demonstrates that the majority of citizens do not hold and exercise political power in Quebec and that the same can be said of the majority of the elected representatives in Parliament.

What does this say about our political institutions?

At a fundamental level, Canada's constitutional monarchy is undemocratic and its political authority is derived from a show of force rather than from the will of the majority of its citizens. Popular elections are held, but they do not yield electoral results that reflect the popular will. On the contrary, the electoral system is designed to usurp the power of the majority and transfer it to a minority. In between elections, there is little that can be done to change this state of affairs.

How does this come about?

In short, our electoral system uses the single member plurality (SMP) voting method that brings about a system of governance in which the most powerful political minority rules as if were a majority.

As could be expected, this electoral system was conceived during the Middle Ages, an epoch that privileged those who exerted territorial control and little attention was paid to those who lived and toiled upon the land. Essentially, the SMP method reproduces this feudal relationship with regard to political power.

For instance, in the Middle Ages military force established who gained control over disputed territory, and to the winner went the spoils of victory. Similarly, in our electoral system, the spoils of victory, effective representation, go to the winner of the electoral campaign in a winner-take-all manner.

It doesn't matter if the majority of citizens/serfs in the territory/electoral district voted against the the candidate who garnered the most votes. Their voices do not matter and all their votes are discarded as if they were not cast at all. Regardless of the total lack of democratic legitimacy in the process, the newly elected deputy takes his or her place as the territorial representative in Parliament.

The primacy of territorial control is then leveraged to form a ruling government. Again, the formation of the government is not bound by the manner in which the citizens/serfs actually voted. The vast majority of Deputies in the House of Commons do not have the support of the majority of their constituents. All that matters is to identify the political party that acquired the most territory as expressed by the number of electoral districts captured in the electoral campaign. To the winner goes the right to rule the land.

As you could imagine, using an electoral method that actually discards what is most often the majority of votes cast by the citizens/serfs compromises the democratic legitimacy of the government that is duly formed. Beyond the recurrent over and under representation of the different political parties in Parliament, there exists a fundamental flaw: the formation of what is misleadingly referred to as a majority government does not require the support of the majority of the electorate. In fact, it is rare that a majority government even has the support of the majority of the citizens that cast their votes, let alone those who are eligible to vote.

Needless to say, this becomes problematic, especially in terms of how political authority is exercised. In a democracy, as a matter of principle the citizenry is bound to accept the will of the majority as long as fundamental human rights are respected. What is the guarantor of respect for political authority if it does not stem from directly from the people but instead is obtained from a democratically flawed process? Tradition? Coercion?

Personally, I find it unacceptable that such a state of affairs is allowed to continue under the guise of democracy. So much so, in collaboration with three of my colleagues, we decided to challenge the democratic legitimacy of the electoral system that brings forward in our eyes a system of government that can only be described as rule of the few over the many.

What allows for this challenge is the adoption in 1982 of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In particular, section 3 of the Charter guarantees the right to vote. As defined by the Supreme Court of Canada, this right goes beyond simply the right to place a ballot into a box and includes the right of each citizen to effective representation and the right of each citizen to participate meaningfully in the electoral process and that these rights are not subject to the political preferences of the majority.

Perhaps, the majority of Canadians prefer to maintain the present system, but this preference does not give them the right to deny effective representation to a significant minority of voters. For example, in the last federal election approximately a million people voted for the Green Party, yet these electors have no effective voice in Parliament. How can this be squared with the right of each citizen to have effective representation? It cannot.

Similarly, where is the substantive equality in an electoral process that confers effective representation only on those electors whose votes establish a candidate's plurality at the expense of all other electors? This means that the system gives strong institutional incentives to people to vote for political parties that are in a position to potentially form a government at the expense of those parties that are not. Consequently, many electors who would otherwise vote for a smaller party if there vote would be used to establish representation don't vote at all or choose to vote strategically by substituting their authentic choice for a strategic vote. In either case, this situation systemically reduces the number of votes a candidate from a small party would otherwise receive, a situation already judged to be antithetical by the Supreme Court of Canada to the values informing a free and democratic society.

At the heart of the issue is whether the electoral system that we inherited from our colonial past conforms to the values of a free and democratic society. Even the British have their doubts as demonstrated by the holding of a nation-wide referendum in the UK on the continued use of their archaic first-past-the-post voting method in May, 2011.

At the very least, both at the provincial and federal, electoral systems must incorporate some mechanism that enables each citizen's vote or preferences to be aggregated so each vote is used in the formula that determines representation and no votes are simply discarded. This would restore democratic legitimacy to our system of governance.

On February 8, 2011, at the Quebec Court of Appeal in Montreal, arguments will be heard to overturn the decision at the lower court that did not support the motion to have our present voting method rendered null and void. With lawyers of the stature of Julius Grey and Peter Rosenthal, both having successfully obtained seminal decisions on democratic rights issues from the Supreme Court of Canada, this promises to be a historic confrontation between the desire to maintain our colonial past and the desire to evolve into a modern democratic society.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sometimes You Have to Say, "Fuck the Economy"

Mighty harsh words, but then again these are mighty harsh times.

It appears to me that on a regular basis regular folks hear proposals and arguments destined to advance the economic interests of the super rich under the guise that this would be good for the economy.

However, if you are aware that your economic interests are not aligned with the proposed course of action, you are perfectly within your rights and you should say, "Fuck the Economy."

Once said, you have moved the discussion out of an abstract, second order debate concerning dubious social theory and the selective use of data sets into what economic debate is really about, the zero-sum struggle to capture a greater share of the available material wealth.

Keep in mind that there is no such thing as THE economy. In fact, what is referred to when we use the term is nothing more, nothing less than the reification of an imagined order the advances or impedes one's economic interests.

In other words, there is no singular, objective economy. Instead, there are data sets that point to the existence of multiple economies, ready to constructed or deconstructed according to the desires of those engaged in the flight of the imagination.

So, don't be fooled by the numbers. For example, some would say on the basis of a highly abstract set of calculations that does not differentiate between the costs of socially positive and socially negative monetary transactions (breaking or repairing a window) that the recession is over as demonstrated by the renewed growth in the gross domestic product (GDP).

Yet, those who are part of the twenty some million in the US who can't find full-time employment might not agree, especially if they find themselves living in a community where there are a large number of people in similar circumstances.

Local reality is often at odds with the official picture emerging from the fraudulent use of economic statistics.

For instance, when calculating the official unemployment rate those who exhaust their unemployment benefits but are unable to find a job simply disappear from the jobless numbers, which means that by using such an obviously flawed statistical measurement, governments knowingly mislead the population by propagating economic propaganda.

Ah yes, but this is a jobless recovery, usually said by a person whose economic interests are aligned with those whose fortunes are no longer adversely affected by the noticeable downturn in economic activity.

In a similar vein, we are told that if were to implement measures to prevent climate change that this would harm the economy. Again, I think the appropriate response is to say, "Well then, Fuck the economy", because living in that reality represents a death wish, which from the proponents of THE Economy Uber Alles isn't such a bad thing since they fervently believe that upon death they will be rewarded with a material upgrade to their present lot in life.

Christmas is coming. Extended families will gather and chances are you'll hear someone talk about THE economy. Give it a try. See if you can get a rise out of old Uncle Ernie, the cheap bastard.

So to everyone who made it this far, I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year, and lest I forget, Fuck the economy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Obama Betrays Those Who Put Him in the White House

In almost every enterprise, the plutocracy has enjoyed opportunities for private gain at public expense. Government nurtures private capital accumulation through a process of subsidies, supports, and deficit spending and an increasingly inequitable tax system.(Michael Parenti)

It so happens that at the moment I'm reading Parenti's classic book, Democracy For The Few, which puts forward the thesis that America since its inception has been a plutocracy, rule for and by the rich. Needless to say, I was prepared to learn of Obama's capitulation with regard to extending tax breaks for the rich that would add to America's staggering deficit.

From the perspective of a progressive, outrage seems appropriate at Obama's lack of resolve to resist the Republicans's attempt to use those who are close to exhausting their unemployment benefits as hostages in order to get the tax breaks for the wealthy.

So much for the slogan: "change we can believe in."

The notion that the extension is just for a period of two years is complete nonsense. Does Obama really believe that the segment of the population that votes infrequently but came out in record numbers to support his presidential bid will cast their ballots for him in 2012? Fat chance.

However, if you look at the turn of events from the perspective that the US is a plutocracy, there is no reason to be alarmed. This is the way the political system in America works.

Some may object that even for a plutocracy that tries to pass itself off for a democracy, this stretches the quaint assertion that America has a government of, by, and for the people beyond what is credible.

But what is the average American to do? The electoral system gives a virtual lock on political power to the monied class. Apart from the hollow rhetoric that distinguishes Democrats from Republicans, both parties are wholly dependent on financing from wealthy Americans. So, at the end of the day, aside from some political gesturing, the political process produces the same economic results regardless of who is the White House and who rules Congress.

God bless America. A nation where corporations enjoy record profits while millions of Americans are without jobs and homes and where the rich stick it to the poor any chance they get.